Authors: Ashley Warlick
It was to the summerhouse in Laguna that she and Al returned after Dijon, and where they’d first met Tim and Gigi.
There had been a minor earthquake. When it passed, they’d tumbled out to the pebbled lane to find Gigi, the ties of her madras sundress flapping against her bare neck. A downed power line snapped and flared behind her, and when she started toward them, it was as though she’d been cracked into motion with the whip of it. Mary Frances felt Al stand up straight beside her; she stood up straighter herself.
“Dear god, California,” Gigi said. In her hands, she held the pieces of a china dog she let chunk into the dirt. “Dillwyn and Gigi Parrish.”
But there was no Dillwyn. The three of them looked behind her to the latticed porch she’d come from. “Timmy!” she called.
The Parrishes had been their constants ever since. They were renting the house next door while Tim worked on several others they owned, one in Laguna and one back in Laurel Canyon. He was older, an artist, he’d run a restaurant, he’d published a novel years before, and illustrated a handful of his famous sister’s children’s books. He knew people in New York and Hollywood; he’d hire Al to paint a fence, and they’d
end up plotting a screenplay. Mary Frances remembered the evenings they talked over a bottle of wine or two, with the fire in the hearth and the wind whisking outside and Gigi like some kind of crystal chandelier, suspended overhead. She often felt she started writing just so they wouldn’t forget about her altogether.
But after a stretch of painting fences, she knew Al was relieved to be part of college life again when he got a job at Occidental starting in the fall. It had been months since they’d seen the Parrishes, since the end of summer, when they’d moved to Eagle Rock.
Mary Frances had missed this house. She had been raised, truly, at this long table by the sea; all the parlors and cooks, the teas and socials back in town, all that balanced by a summer spent scrabbling along the rocks with her sisters, Norah and Anne, their feet black with tar, their bellies full of fish their brother David pulled from his nets. The Kennedys’ Laguna. She had come here hoping for some sense of what this place might do to fix her now.
She took the path from the weathered porch through the sage and down the cliffs to the ocean. It was not warm, and the beach was curved around itself and empty, the broad neon sign for the hotel winking on and off up the coast. She sat on the bottom step nearly in the sand and watched the sea beat itself against the shore.
Behind her, she heard footsteps and turned to see another couple she knew from the summer. Every afternoon they’d sit on their blanket, the man in a short, tight bathing suit, the woman dressed like his nurse, rubbing his thick brown back
with oil. Now passing her on the bottom stair, they let their conversation drop, to be picked up again once they were alone.
In summer, the man had watched her as she came from the ocean, his forearms draped over his bent knees, squinting after her into the sun. Every day he watched her pass their blanket for the stairs, her wet bathing suit somehow making her more than naked, and his eyes so constant. One day she looked back, met his stare, held it. Then, from behind, the woman rose and nipped the fat part of his hand with her teeth the way a bitch directs a pup, and he laughed, turned to the woman, smiled, spoke. Like a distant light, Mary Frances had snapped out.
Now the man walked along the water’s edge, just outside the spray, and the woman followed a half step behind, her arms folded against her gray buttoned coat. After a while, she reached out and brushed some fleck from the shoulders of his sweater. Mary Frances no longer walking past their blanket, the winter, this chill, this season had not really changed them.
Soon Mary Frances would take the steps back up the cliffs to her narrow bed beneath the eaves and sleep, and then tomorrow she would return to Al, her face windburned from this morning on the beach and fresh enough to hide behind. She would make supper, the simple kind of meal they used to eat in France, then the last of the good cognac by the fire. Al would pick up the book they were reading,
, and the great white whale would take them back to the sea.
It was just a night she had insisted on, with her willfulness, with her shoes in her hands. It was just a night, and back in Eagle Rock, she would feel her life nip her into place again,
blurring at the edges so that she could not say if she had meant for such a night to happen or just to come close enough to watch it pass by.
* * *
Back in Eagle Rock, Al was writing the same he’d been writing for almost their entire married life together. He went to class in the morning and came home for lunch, a bottle of milk, a fried egg on rye, a kiss on her cheek before he went to his office, and that was what she saw of him until dinnertime.
She followed the rhythm of his typewriter around the house. She washed the dishes, hung the laundry, took a bath, the tap of his keys coming over the transom from his desk next door, a vibrant whickering, so loud and bright. She was afraid of what would fill her head if not this brightness, if not the clip of his typing, the crank of a fresh page.
In Dijon, Al had seemed to be thinking all the time, and even when they were first married, she never knew what he was thinking about. He could be perfectly still for minutes, his lanky legs folded under his chair, looking out the same window she sat in front of. His black coffee, his pipe, the still keys of his typewriter, and his long stare right through her over the mossy rooftops of the city. It was worse when he worked in their rooms. It was worse to see how far away he was, right next to her, than to imagine him at the café in the
, not seeing strangers around him, not even the pretty girls.
She’d slip off her velvet house shoes, cross her legs high, and wait for him to notice. She’d tap the tip of her pen against her teeth, the wet pop of her lips in the silence. She’d turn her face to the sun, arch back against her chair, and close her
eyes, but she was nearly screaming in her own head, innervated, willing him to turn her way. Finally she’d snap out of her chair, the novel open in her lap clattering to the floor.
Finally, then, Al looked at her.
“Darling,” he said, reaching into the breast pocket of his coat. “It’s Thursday, isn’t it.”
And he’d press into her hand some tiny gift he’d picked for her in the market, a pair of ivory buttons, a lavender sachet, a tortoiseshell comb for her hair. He gave her something every Thursday to mark the day they first met, and turning the bauble in her palm, she would feel as if she’d forged it herself, with all her want pressing up against his lofty far-awayness.
He’d smile at her, brush his fingers across her cheek, and everything was fine again.
Now she jumped at the ringing telephone, the mailman’s knock. She lingered in the hall outside his study—Al’s chair, Al’s black typewriter, Al’s poem, the last thin light faint across the desktop—waiting to be invited in.
“Darling,” he said. “Is it so late already?”
He extended his arm for her to step inside. They looked at the scattering of work across the desk: the slips of ciphered paper, the full ashtray, the growing stack of manuscript that she would not ask again to read. She could throw a dust cloth over all of it, pack their bags, and go south to Mexico, back to France, return maybe in the spring. They had once spent a chilly holiday planning a trip to Algiers they both knew they would never take. She needed a plan like that now, a string of plans, the sort Al had always made with her before.
“Dinner?” she said.
He sighed, his blond curls sweetly ruffled. “Of course.”
He took his place at the kitchen table, and she reached across him to strike a match for the candles, her body brisk and distant, a kite too far away to chase. It was difficult to leave his desk sometimes, to remember what she’d want from him, how to be a husband.
She pulled a small glass from the cabinet and a bottle of sherry, placed them at his elbow.
“What would I do without you?” he said, but she did not turn around.
Al pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes. He liked to listen to Mary Frances in the kitchen, the rasp of the knife against the board and whatever thunking vegetable she was taking down. It was a habit they’d begun those last few weeks in France, their apartment so small and cold that Mary Frances had prepared supper in her overcoat. They didn’t talk—later, huddled together in front of the coal stove, they would read to each other, they would talk then—but when Al had spent the day at his desk, to be in the same room with her was often overwhelming.
He’d never seen such company between his mother and father. His mother boiled potatoes and slabs of meat, and he’d never seen his father sit and watch her, never seen him sit without doing something else: reading the paper, listening to the radio, eating, and then moving on. His mother had her hands full with himself and Herbert, brothers for whom food was fuel. And then there was his father’s church, the parishioners, the handfuls of people in and out on any given day. The community. The community had always been important to his parents.
Al felt without one now, only himself, Mary Frances, and her family.
“You know,” he said. “Larry says Fay’s boy is less a terror since he’s been talking more. More words, less screaming. Perhaps we can have them back around.”
Mary Frances laughed. Larry was their oldest friend. “But what about Fay?”
“You love Fay.”
“I love Larry. I like Fay.”
Mary Frances sectioned an orange from its membrane over a bowl to catch the juice; the quick feathering motion of her wrist. The kitchen filled with oranges.
“I doubt they’ll have more children,” Al said.
The rhythms of her knife broke, began again. “Oh, doesn’t the world have children enough? Clearly, Fay has her hands full.”
Al didn’t say anything.
“Clearly,” he said. He spun the sherry in its glass.
In his mother’s letter yesterday, she said the X-ray treatments had done little for his father’s pain, less for his cancer. Blood was the most efficient conduit. And Herbert was still in China; it was unlikely he would ever take a wife and come back home.
The evening slipped away outside the kitchen window, the candles finding the underside of Mary Frances’s profile, her straight, true jaw. She’d paused when he mentioned children, but the mention was so buried, he couldn’t tell how to read her best. It was up to him, he supposed, to bring it up again.
He stood, pulling his shirt free from his pants. “I’ll get cleaned up,” he said, and left for the bedroom.
In the skillet, fat burned, then blackened. Mary Frances snapped to it, nudging the pan with a dishtowel. She wiped out the skillet with a piece of newspaper and began again, this time screwing her attention tight. She browned onions and garlic, and from the pot on the windowsill, chopped a few winter-sad leaves of tarragon. The smell was green and strong, and she thought of spring.
Spring in Dijon, when she and Al would hike into the mountains with the Club Alpin, the old women forever chiding her tentative steps, her newborn French:
la petite violette, violette américaine
. She would turn back to Al, annoyed, and he would laugh. Hardly his delicate flower. When they stopped for lunch, it was Mary Frances with the soufflé of calves’ brains, whatever was made of liver or marrow, ordering enough strong wine that everyone was laughing. The way home, the women let her be.
If she wanted calves’ brains now, she wouldn’t even know where to begin to look or how to pay. She and Al seemed to be living on vegetables and books, tobacco, quiet. She blanched a bunch of spinach and chopped it. She beat eggs with the tarragon, heated the skillet once again. There was a salad of avocados and oranges. There was a cold bottle of ale and bread. Enough, for tonight.
Her own mother had relied on cooks, on the larder and the icebox, on there always being plenty, but in France there had never been a place to store plenty, and Mary Frances had learned how to manage day to day. She supposed Al had learned too, not necessarily how he might expect to be cared for, not meat and potatoes, coffee and cake, but rather something back and forth, give and take. A conversation. She took
up the dishtowel again and slid the skillet beneath the broiler. Such a conversation with Al might be the safest kind these days.
He returned to the kitchen asking if she wanted to go for drinks at the Parrishes.
Mary Frances steadied herself against the edge of the stove. He held the invitation in his hand.
“Isn’t Gigi out of town?” she said.
“I’m sure she’s back by now. A welcome home?” Al snapped the card against his palm. “We haven’t seen them in too long.”
“No,” she said. “We haven’t.”
She had been so stupid. Of course, there would still be parties. There would still be drinks and dinners and movies and card games with the Parrishes, and whatever sparkling thing that used to happen when she caught Tim’s eye across the table would never happen anymore because she had been unable to leave it at that. Because she could not leave well enough alone.
There was a fast slip in her thoughts, and suddenly Tim’s skin against her palms, as real as if she’d touched him, and then only her hands again, fishing for the last knife in the dishwater. The simplest responses failed her. She pulled the frittata from the oven, sliced wedges of it for herself and Al, dressed the salad, cracked the ale, and laid the table. Al bowed his head in thanks; what was there to do but what they’d done before? They bent to their meal, and ate.
* * *
Across the valley, dinner was already cooling in its plates. Gigi had made soup, silvery dumplings of fat floating on the
surface of the bowls, a hunk of something still smoking in the kitchen. They had almost laughed, it was so bad, and called dinner off completely. Tim was too hard upon the gin to really care.
In the living room, Gigi sat at the piano, plinking out a song she was supposed to learn for the Busby Berkeley picture, the next one where she would play a girl with legs. It was the best Tim could figure it; she had no lines, no part in a story, but she and ninety-nine others like her would all put their legs together and call it a dance number. He tipped the gin into his mouth. She couldn’t play piano either. She was twenty-two years old. What difference did it make if she could sing and dance? He loved her, god, and he was sorry about Mary Frances.